1001.1 — WATCHERS


Goal: Retro-hipster-film look

I’ve been seeing the retro-hipster-film look a lot these days, even outside its usual Instagram stomping grounds. There are at least a half-hundred filters out there that can be applied in-app, in Photoshop, or on device to give shots a decaying film look, and nine out of ten times that style boils down to flattened contrast with some slightly off white balance. I’m not knocking the style — I’ve used it plenty and am a fan of its simple nostalgic appeal. WATCHERS is one of my more recent edits based on the retro-hipster-film trend.

Context : How the shot was taken

This one came from a collection of about 30 photos taken on the beach near Deception Pass, WA in early March. I have just over 200 shots from the whole trek around the park, but I was a big fan of this particular log bench and its marvelous view of the strait. As always, I was very fortunate to have these two beautiful models on hand who were willing to take in the scenery for a bit as I snapped off captures from the shrubbery.

I tried a number of different angles and distances to ensure that I captured everything I wanted in the scene (and as little as possible of what I didn’t). Since I usually shoot with fixed length lenses, this meant trying a variety of shooting locations that were only one or two paces apart, and a lot of lens swaps to compare bokeh / composition / etc.

I should point out that March is not a recommended time to visit the beaches at Deception Pass. It’s a truly beautiful summer day trip spot, complete with short viewtiful hikes and large grassy bbq areas — It’s probably been packed every weekend over the last few months. For our early spring visit though, it was empty. The solitary scene combined with the soft lighting of the in-like-a-lion storm clouds that eventually rained us away added a visual appeal that I didn’t expect. This is now something I keep in mind, especially up here in the Pacific North-West : it’s easy to shoot in great weather, and everyone does it. The off-season, bad-weather-days, and cold nights can be a great boon to the shoot if you’re ready for it.

The final specs for this photo were:

Camera: Nikon D610
Lens : Sigma 24mm F1.4
Exposure: 1/4000s, ISO: 100

Post : Getting closer to the vision

The post-processing for this shot took a bit longer than average, mainly due to the intense backlighting of the clouds and the difficult exposure differences between foreground and background. Much of this could be avoided with an external flash and umbrella setup or even just some directed reflector lighting during the shoot. But we were excited to continue exploring the park, and I was foolishly confident that I could clean up the lighting in post, so I opted against setting up any lighting help.

Editing focused on 4 main phases:

  • Balance the lighting. As the RAW came out of the camera the clouded sky was pretty overexposed and the foreground was losing a lot of desired detail to underexposed shadow. I split the image into three main areas (clouds, water & islands, foreground) and updated the exposure on each of them independently. Feathering the selections for each area helped smooth out some of the changing EV across the image and kept any HDR split exposure artifacts muted.
  • Brighten the subjects. Even after the exposing the three main parts of the image separately I was still losing a lot of detail of the main subjects in the shot. I was envisioning a shot with Jen & Penne as obvious vibrant centerpieces to the landscape, so I needed to do a bit more precise localized exposure compensation on both of them before applying any full image changes.
  • Warm the foreground and cool the shadows. I had the exposure balanced to about what I was hoping for, so I started adding a bit of temperature to the scene to direct focus. For the foreground & subjects I added a slightly warmer hue, particularly to the highlights, via split-toning. For everything else, the inverse selection, I decreased the vibrance a bit and added some cooling tones to the shadows. The color palette I had in mind had warm as golden yellow and cool as aqua green.
  • Apply the retro-hipster-film look. I applied a small vignette as one final focal-point crutch and then flattened the entire image with a slightly positive Exposure Offset and a slightly negative Gamma Correction. This dampened the shadows / highlights and decreased saturation a bit to give the scene a lightly faded look.

Final Thoughts

The final image ended up close to what I was hoping for except that the localized lighting changes came off more unrealistic than I expected. The balance of the scene came through the way I’d hoped, but shooting the same thing again I think I’d try a few minutes of lighting setup for much more flexibility in post. Some extra foreground lighting may have let me bump the shutter speed a bit to capture more detail in the cloudscape or might have given some shine to the reflective Patagonia day pack, but that’s a lesson I can apply next time. Always next time.